In 1962, the French Navy (Marine Nationale) ordered the Vought F-8 Crusader as a carrier-based air superiority fighter to succeed the Aquilon. It was to serve aboard the new Aeronautique Navale (Aeronavale) aircraft carriers Foch and Clemenceau. The French aviation industry was unable to come up with an acceptable design, so the French Navy somewhat reluctantly opted for an American aircraft.
When the French Navy's air arm, the Aéronavale, required a carrier based fighter in the early 1960s to serve aboard the new carriers Clemenceau and Foch, the F-4 Phantom, then entering service with the United States Navy, proved to be too large for the small French ships. Following carrier trials aboard Clemenceau on 16 March 1962, by two VF-32 F-8s from the American carrier Saratoga, the Crusader was chosen
The French Crusader was designated F-8E(FN), where the FN stood for "French Navy". The Marine Nationale originally planeed to order 40 single seat F-8E(FN) fighters, plus six TF-8E(FN) two-seaters. However, when plans for the development of the two-seat Crusader were abandoned, the order was changed to 42 F-8E(FN) single-seaters. The 42 F-8E(FN) aircraft were assigned the Bureau of Aeronautics serial numbers 151732/151773 for administrative purposes.
The F-8E(FN) had to be modified so that it could operate safely aboard French aircraft carriers, which were somewhat smaller than their American counterparts. In order to reduce the approach speed, the maximum angle of incidence of the variable-incidence wing was increased from five to seven degrees. The drooping wing leading edges were separated into two sections in order to increase the amount of camber that could be achieved when they were extended. A boundary layer control system was added, which blew pressurized air from the engine compressor through adjustable air vents that exhausted over the trailing edge wing flaps. The airflow pressure automatically increased with the angle of flap deflection. The maximum angle of deflection of the trailing-edge flaps was increased. The surface area of the tailplane was increased.
The quartet of four 20-mm cannon was retained, as well as the ability to carry four fuselage-mounted AIM-9B Sidewinder missiles. However, provision was also made to accommodate the French-built Matra R530 air-to-air missile, which existed in both infrared and semi-active radar homing versions. One R530 was carried on each side of the fuselage on rail launchers. Often, an infrared-homing R530 would be carried in one side of the fuselage, with a radar-homer on the other side. To accommodate the R530 in its radar-homing version, a Magnavox AN/APQ-104 radar was fitted, together with a modified AN/AWG-4 fire control system.
F-8D BuNo 147036 was used as the test airframe for the F-8E(FN) and flew for the first time on February 27, 1964. Unfortunately, it crashed on April 11, 1964. The first production F-8E(FN) flew on June 26, 1964, and it was assigned the task of completing the test program.
The first French Crusaders arrived at Saint Nazaire on October 5, 1964. The first Aeronavale squadron to receive the Crusader was Flotille 12F, with Flotille 14F following six months later. Flotille 14F was re-equipped with the Super Etendard in 1978, but 14F stood down in 1991, leaving 12F to soldier on with the Crusader as the only Aeronavale interceptor squadron. Although a "foreign" aircraft, the Crusader was nevertheless highly popular with its French Navy pilots,
Over the years, the armament of the F-8E(FN) has been through several stages of upgrading. The French Crusader originally carried the Matra R530 missile, which existed in both infrared- and semi-active radar-homing versions. The Sidewinder infrared-homing missile was still compatible with the F-8E(FN), but it was very rarely carried. The enhanced Matra Super 530 was never adopted for the Crusader, since the APQ-104 radar was not compatible with it. In late 1989, the Matra R530 was withdrawn from service. In 1973, the Matra R550 Magic short range infrared-homing air-to-air missile was added to the Crusader's armament suite. The all-aspect Magic 2 was made available in 1988, and is now the French Crusader's primary missile armament.
New F-8J wings were installed on French Crusaders in 1969, and from 1979 onward their Pratt & Whitney J57-P-20A turbojets were fitted with new afterburners.
In October 1974, (on Clemenceau) and June 1977 (on Foch), Crusaders from 14.F squadron participated in the Saphir missions over Djibouti. On 7 May 1977, two Crusaders went separately on patrol against supposedly French Air Force (4/11 Jura squadron) F-100 Super Sabres stationed at Djibouti. The leader intercepted two fighters and engaged a dogfight (supposed to be a training exercise) but quickly called his wingman for help as he had actually engaged two Yemeni MiG-21s. 2 French fighters switched their master armament to "on" but, ultimately, everyone returned to their bases. This was the only combat interception by French Crusaders.
Aeronavale Crusaders have never seen any combat, although they have served in war zones. In 1983, Flotille 12F flew top cover in operations off Lebanon while Super Etendards attacked gun positions in retaliation for terrorist attacks on French targets in Beirut. In 1987, during the Iran-Iraq war, Crusaders went into the Persian Gulf aboard the Clemenceau in an international effort to protect shipping against attacks by Iranian speedboats. Several interceptions of Iranian aircraft were made, although there was no actual combat.
The Crusader has been serving with the French Navy for nearly thirty years, and is by now quite long in the tooth. It has become increasingly difficult to keep the aircraft operational. Since the Crusader has been long out of production, the French Navy has to rely on the boneyards of AMARC at Davis-Monthan AFB in Arizona for spare parts, as well as having to manufacture a small number of spare parts itself.
The Crusader was scheduled to be replaced aboard French aircraft carriers by the Dassault Rafale M, but the first of these aircraft were delayed until 1998 In the meantime, the Crusader had to fill in as the Aeronavale's only carrier-based interceptor. Due to delays in the development of the Rafale, it was decided to refurbish the Crusaders to extend their operating life. Each aircraft was rewired and had its hydraulic system refurbished, while the airframe was strengthened to extend fatigue life. Avionics were improved, with a modified navigation suite and a new radar-warning receiver. The 17 refurbished aircraft were redesignated as F-8P (P used for "Prolongé" -extended
In order to make the French Crusader a viable interceptor until the end of the century, the surviving F-8E(FN)s were scheduled to go through an extensive upgrade to increase their service life. As part of the upgrade, a new zero-zero capable Martin-Baker ejector seat was to be installed, and the airframe was to be reinforced and strengthened. The wiring and the hydraulic system were to be replaced. The cockpit instruments were to be rearranged and and there was to be a new avionics suite fitted which included a radar altimeter, IFF, ILS, and VOR. The gyroscopic navigation system of the Mirage F1 was to be adopted. A Thomson-CSF Sherloc radar warning receiver was to be mounted in a vertical fin extension. The first upgraded F-8E(FN) was completed in June of 1992, and by September 1994, 12 aircraft had been modified.
The French Navy retired its F-8 Crusaders from service on December 19, 1999, replacing them with the Dassault Rafale M
151732/151773 Vought F-8E(FN) Crusader